Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
the lone and level sands stretch far away…
– Percy Bysshe Shelly, Ozymandius.
At Curdimurka Siding, the windows of an abandoned railway station stare sightlessly out onto a landscape of grey saltbush and red dirt. The roots of a coolibah tree have cracked and heaved the platform. Swallows nest in the eaves of the verandah; galahs roost on the rusted water tower. The tracks of the disused Central Australian Railway, half buried by drifting soil, converge into a vanishing point on the flat horizon.
The station building stands alone in the wilderness. Inside, the names of passing travellers are scrawled in charcoal on the flaking plaster walls. Through a grimy window I watch a four wheel drive towing a low-slung caravan and a cloud of red dust pass by out on the Oodnadatta Track. A loose sheet of corrugated iron rattles on the roof. The hiss of locomotive steam is just the sound of cicadas.
The Oodnadatta Track runs from the village of Marree, in central South Australia, to Oodnadatta, four hundred kilometres further north on the edge of the Simpson Desert. The track follows a course roughly parallel to the route taken by the Central Australian Railway.
The light is so harsh I am just a shadow in the resulting image.
Nicknamed “the Ghan” (short for Afghan, a reference to the Afghan cameleers who pioneered transport routes into Australia’s inland), the Central Australian Railway operated for more than a century. The last train passed down the line in 1980. A new railway had been built further west. The Ghan was no longer needed. The iron tracks were torn up. The stations, sidings, bridges and water towers were left to subside into the desert.
Beyond Curdimurka, on the edge of Lake Eyre, I walk out into a white limbo of salt. The hot air is heavy with the briny scent of sodium chloride. The thin, crystalline crust crunches underfoot. Fed by a catchment comprising one sixth of Australia’s area, Lake Eyre occasionally fills with water. But mostly it is dry: a bleached landscape of blue and white, like an overexposed photo negative. I set my camera on a tripod and take a selfie. The light is so harsh I am just a shadow in the resulting image.
On a flattened ridge overlooking the lake, some deranged artist has created steampunk sculptures from bits of iron scavenged from the railway. A pair of aircraft, their tails buried in the dirt, protrude from the ground. The scene is reminiscent of a Pink Floyd album cover. I leave the white sepulchre of Lake Eyre behind and drive north towards an unreachable point where the edges of the track converge and the sky comes down to meet the Earth.
I camp for the night beside a waterhole on the Warriner River. The girders of a Ghan railway bridge, balanced on thin steel struts, cross the river just downstream. Thousands of wading birds screech and titter on the water.
I pitch my tent on a spit of red sand surrounded by bright green acacia bushes laden with fragrant yellow flowers. My campfire crackles and snaps as I cook steak, onions and tinned peas for tea. Later, I drink coffee and condensed milk squeezed from a tube and watch the last rays of the sun drain from the sky.
I am struck by the thought that the heat and light produced by the burning wood of my campfire fell as sunlight on the Outback decades ago. In a strange, tenuous way, it connects me with the days when the Ghan trains rattled over the old bridge which now stands silhouetted by the rising moon.
…black-clad crows, like hunched station-masters, gurgle their disapproval.
Two thousand feet above William Creek, bush pilot Sarah Stevens puts her Cessna 172 into a long banking turn. The aircraft skips and yaws in the bumpy air. Our destination is the Painted Hills, a jumble of ridges and hummocks etched with ochre and yellow minerals, pure white clays and purple shales. As we fly low over the hills, their colours and tints are reflected from the underside of the Cessna’s wing.
We circle the gigantic spiral hole of the Prominent Hill copper mine then turn north-east on a heading of 063° which will take us back to William Creek. Far below, the waterways and channels look like veins on the back of an ancient hand. William Creek’s handful of buildings coalesce out of the haze. On our approach to the runway, I look down on the parallel lines of the Ghan railway and the Oodnadatta Track. They are nothing more than indistinct scratches on the landscape.
The Algebuckina Bridge spans the Neales River, fifty kilometres south-east of Oodnadatta. Completed in 1892, the colossal steel lattice of girders and cross-braces, half a kilometre long, seems to hang in the shimmering air above the green water of the river.
Steel bars block the ends of the bridge. Recklessly, I clamber around the outside edge and walk across, stepping from sleeper to sleeper. Corellas and galahs shriek at me from their guano-splattered roosts on the girders; black-clad crows, like hunched station-masters, gurgle their disapproval. In the centre of the bridge, the steelwork draws linear projections which collapse to vanishing points behind and ahead of me.
Oodnadatta, the “driest town in the driest state of the driest continent”, arrives out of the blue. After days alone in the wilderness, the ragged collection of buildings, scattered along a short, wide strip of tarmac, feels like a bustling urban environment. At the centre of Oodnadatta, The Pink Roadhouse could be a set from Pricilla Queen of the Desert.
I wallow in the sybaritic pleasures the roadhouse offers: hot showers, cold drinks, steak sandwiches. But I feel a strange desire to return to the long, converging vistas of the Oodnadatta Track, and the decaying remnants of the Ghan. I walk to the northern edge of town where the tarmac crumbles into red dirt again. The boundless desert stretches away before me. The road runs to a point where the sky comes down to meet the horizon, and vanishes.